Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
When I finished the first story in this collection, I knew I was in the hands of a master short story writer. In just 55 or so pages, Jhumpa Lahiri tells the story of Ruma’s father visiting her new home in Seattle for the first time. But in the course of those 55 pages, I felt like I received a fully realized view into Ruma and her father’s past, present, and future.
I was stunned how Jhumpa Lahiri was able to fit so much into the story—Ruma’s relationship with her mother and her grief for her unexpected death, the state of Ruma’s marriage to her husband Adam, her father’s new relationship with a woman, the family’s dynamics growing up, the loneliness of being a mother in a strange new city. Yet the story never felt rushed, forced or jumbled; it unfolds naturally and eloquently. Each little detail is presented when it should be and gives you another piece to Ruma and her father. At the end, each little piece becomes part of a fully-formed mosaic—complete, colorful, shining and whole.
And Jhumpa Lahiri’s skill continued with the rest of the stories. Each one had the same sense of wholeness and completeness to it. At the end of each story, I felt full and satisfied—never wanting more, never needing more. Each story was a perfect fully formed pearl.
The book itself is divided into two parts. Part One has five separate “stand alone” stories. Part Two, which is called “Hema and Kaushik,” has three stories—one for Hema, one for Kaushik, and one that brings them together.
Although each story has its own feel and characters, Lahiri returns to and touches on similar themes in each story that tie the collection together as a whole. The experience of being an immigrant and coming from India to America is a common thread (specifically, a Bengali Indian). Marriage—arranged marriages vs. “chosen” marriages—is another theme that runs throughout each story. The “Americanization” of Indian children and parents is yet another recurring thread. In addition, Lahiri uses Cambridge, Massachusetts as the setting for several of the stories.
Yet even though you might accurately call this collection “an examination of the Indian immigrant experience,” the truths and emotions of these characters are universal. I felt connected to each of Lahiri’s characters. I recognized facets of my life in their lives. I heard my thoughts in their thoughts. I saw myself reflected in them. Although our culture, upbringing, location and families might be different, Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters spoke to me and it rang true.
The story that most affected me was the third Hema and Kaushik story, “Going Ashore.” This was a masterful piece of storytelling, and the ending just wrenched my heart out. The very last sentence of the story is so simple and stark yet reading it brought tears to my eyes, and I felt my heart ache a little bit.
If you have prejudices against short stories like I did, do yourself a favor and read Unaccustomed Earth. To me, these stories are perfect examples of what you can do with the short story form. I know that they will be the standard by which I judge all other short story collections in the future—and the bar has been set exceedingly high.